Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek Part 3

There is an old saying about March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb--or maybe vice-versa. Anyway, this month began very pleasantly. That may not be a good sign.

As the seasons rotate, the creek changes. Early this month as the soil began to warm and ice was less frequent hints that spring will actually come began to appear. Along the banks you see a spot or two of green. Trees have warmer tones in their bark. And the leafless branches behind the
trunks begin to glow, just a bit. I blocked in the big shapes and then painted the sky first, using two blues and a warm grey, then washed warm greys into distant masses, leaving a few sky holes. I was careful to reserve an area or two for trees in the foreground. The creek looked almost black but in reality was a very dark and warm brown. The yellow foreground is mostly ochres as is the redder right bank. Using a technical pen I added distant and near detail, trying hard not to render too much. The trunks came last, and here and there I used a touch of opaque paint as contrasts. That sequence is my usual in these sketches.
The creek is surprising because the changes that now seem obvious, painted on paper, sometimes went unnoticed until studied more critically. The water looked as dark as coffee that early morning, even though the woods had warm colors in many spots. The banks were dry and yellow but looked warmer, and even the sky looked better through patchy clouds. The next day was almost the same though the sky was more grey than blue. Here and there the trunks of some trees were even warmer looking. The sky in the creek even turned a fine blue-green in the sunshine but still was like coffee, in the shadows.

Despite the early March chill, it seems to me as if the trees and undergrowth--the whole woods really--were about to burst into growth and flower. Even on the day the sketch above was made the cold air couldn't chase the yellowing sunlight out of the trees downstream. Two scraps of snow shone in the shadows along the right bank. The notation on the facing page mentions that even though the painting looks like wilderness there is a street on one side and buildings on the other, edited out.
Winter wasn't through with us those first two weeks of this month. Even though the light was still warm(ish) the days were gloomy with clouds and only a couple of days after the glowing branches downstream the entire distance turned a slate grey and the creek ran steel blue. In retrospect it was as if a dark curtain fell across the woods, and there were more grey days to follow. At the end of a long winter season time slows and the cold seems unending. Grey days in March are a kind of setback, especially when preceded by milder ones. I stood in the studio window and shivered a little as flurries of snow began to fall.

Druid Hill Creek Part 1
Part 2

Friday, March 16, 2018


Several years ago as I was searching for reference materials for practice in painting heads it occurred to me that there are tens of thousands of fascinating public domain photos taken by law enforcement and easily available online. Police photos (mugshots) are common, easy to find, carry no copyright issues, and very commonly provide a window into the personality of the accused. Looking at photographs of these individuals always causes me to wonder what really goes on behind those eyes.

So for a year or two mugshots of truly infamous law breakers was one of my favorite ways to practice painting heads. As is almost always the case with studies and practice works, many of the paintings that resulted were useful as studies but little else. A few might stand as tronies of a kind, although in each case the identity of the individual is obviously well-know. In any event, many of that body of work are long discarded, though a few have survived. These were part of a group resurrected from a storage closet not long ago.

Charles Starkweather, oil on panel, 2004
The first portrait is from a photo of  an infamous serial killer named Charles Starkweather. In the late 1950s he and his girlfriend terrorized rural Nebraska, killing about a dozen people, including her family. Their crimes electrified the nation with daily screaming headlines about each killing until they were eventually captured. Starkweather was convicted as the killer and executed in 1959. His girlfriend was convicted as an accessory and imprisoned for almost two decades before being paroled. Like many in similar situations Starkweather was a loner/outsider who had been bullied by many until his rage eventually boiled over. In this image, taken from a photo online, my take on him was how vague and unfocused he seemed. There seemed to me to be emptiness behind a false facade. Although he was apparently not psychotic, some sources say he was convinced that he was immune to any law or authority. Perhaps.

Aileen Wuornos, oil on panel, 2004
Another infamous criminal was Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer in Florida. She shot and killed seven men around 1990 while working as a prostitute. When arrested she claimed rape in each case, either committed or threatened, although she later recanted. Her mugshot, which I used for source material, seemed to show an unrepentant and actually rather amused woman with dead-looking eyes. She was eventually convicted of six murders and executed in 2002. Female serial killers are rare, and Wuornos' crimes were particularly brutal; she shot each victim multiple times. Considering the level of violence in her crimes, it's clear that her rage and mental imbalance were both enormous. To my eyes she looked almost demonic, yet ordinary. (Her life was adapted into the movie, Monster.)

Mary Kay, oil on panel, 2004
Although not a violent criminal like the two above, the woman in the painting to the right is Mary Kay Letourneau, who was certainly notorious n her own right. In the late 1990s she was a teacher who was convicted of having sex with a 12 year old student in one of her classes. While in jail, compounding matters, she gave birth to the boy's child. When released and under a no-contact order she was caught with the boy again and imprisoned for rape of a child. Upon her release in 2004, she and the student (who had reached majority) actually married and seem now to be living out happy lives. This image of her was primarily an exploration of her complex expression, which spoke to me of sadness, weariness, resignation perhaps. She seems to know that we will never understand her, never accept her behavior, and yet she is somehow defiant. A challenging face.

These portraits were not prompted by the sensational nature of the crimes or the strangeness of the individuals. The reason for these and a number of others was simply availability of the images, horrifying yet fascinating stories, and the faces themselves. Although these people are not physically grotesque, their lives and behaviors definitely were, by almost any definition. Goya made pictures of grotesque people, da Vinci too. So it has always seemed to me that even the most grotesque, repellent, or ugly humans still have the ability to fascinate.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Continuing With Casein

Over the past couple of years, time permitting, I've been working with casein paint. The reasons are many. For one thing, it's important to me to continue investigating media that aren't my usual, and casein certainly wasn't, given how uncommonly it's used these days. For another, once I began working with the paint I was surprised at how pleasing it is to use--smooth, matte, quick-drying but forgiving, opaque and richly pigmented. On the other hand, deep darks have been tough for me to achieve and casein penalizes overworking with muddiness even more than other paint. Nonetheless, some of the results have been great fun, which is what keeps me coming back to it.

"Cotton Candy," casein, 12x16, 2018
Over the last couple of weeks I've been working on one of the biggest casein paintings I've attempted--12x16--on illustration board. It's a painting based on a few sketches and personal reference photos taken at the Iowa State Fair last fall. The three food booths were in front of one of the show pavilions on the fairgrounds, and there were even more people in the photo than there are in the final painting.

I drew the complicated image first in graphite, taking care over proportions and perspective. When I was satisfied with the composition and the number of figures I started laying in casein paint, beginning at the top left and working across to the top right, painting in the top third. Then I went back to the middle left, painting across the middle third in broad patches while adding detail here and there in the top third. Eventually I moved to the bottom third and repeated the process. When the whole board was covered I spent more time on details like lettering, various figures and fixtures.

Casein paint continues to fascinate me and no question I'll keep making casein paintings. 
Previous posts
Milk Paint
Casein Investigations
Quick Sketching in Casein
More on Casein
Acrylic or Casein?

Friday, March 09, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek, Part 2

Someone once condemned April as "the cruelest month," but seems to me in our latitudes February or March would be better candidates. Last month we began with bitter cold and then continued with snow and ice and gray days. Happily, there was no need to brave the elements. I sketched from the studio window. These are a few more images from last month.

The first shows the creek completely frozen and deep in snow. The sky had cleared to a deep, crystalline blue. And as the note says, a thaw was eagerly anticipated by everyone here in flyover land. A day or two later, the air itself began to feel as if spring was lurking somewhere nearby. The snow melted, or perhaps some even evaporated, and the creek began to flow once again. 

The watercolor on the right shows the creek and a pair of houses downstream. The day was more gray than usual, but warmer, and gray open water ran downstream. The trees seemed gloomier than usual, too. I included a couple of houses in this one, though I generally leave them out. These sketches don't show identical scenery mostly because as I do them I'm picking and choosing what to leave in and what to leave out. The choices don't always work as well as I'd like, but the point of sketching isn't to diddle and fiddle but to capture the idea and the image as best one can, with minimal revisions.

This sketch from a day or two later gives a good idea of how the light began to change toward the end of the month. The warmer temperatures seemed reflected as warmer light on parts of bare trees along the banks of Druid Hill Creek. This image is from mid-February, and despite snow on the banks and continued cold weather, even the dead grasses began to look more cheerful.

The last February sketch, from a week and a half later. Here I was most interested in the flattened and dry grasses along the bank. The day was gloomy but the grass and the far banks seem to promise that it won't be long until spring. One can only hope.

The season advances this month as the sun climbs higher and the earth begins to warm. The creek continues to change and the change has accelerated. Tiny hints of green peek out of a dense litter of leaves and twigs on the floor of the woods. Meanwhile a pair of cardinals forages for nesting materials and the local squirrels have emerged to play tag. The creek flows smooth as the sky it mirrors. It won't be long until foliage bursts out. More sketches to come.

Sketching Druid Hill Creek

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Old Sketches

Probably everyone who keeps sketchbooks has used the contents as a mine for subject matter. For some a sketchbook is a visual diary of the day or week; for others it's a way to meditate on potential subject matter, and of course for some sketchbooks are simply a pastime, and a great one. For me they serve all of those functions. In the studio I have stacks of sketchbooks, big and small, full and in progress. Sketching becomes part of the practice of the artist, if pursued.

So, as this week begins and the seasons are starting to rotate, it's a good time to rummage through old files and reconsider forgotten ideas. This morning, searching for subject matter in old digital files these sketches came to light. Of course I could leaf through all of these books, and have done so a number of times, but today I raided my old computer files. If you're like me you find something--a page of watercolor thumbnails, perhaps, or a long-forgotten gouache, even--to fire up the creative juices.

Near Gunnison, gouache, 2015
Speaking of forgotten images, this forgotten gouache of a road near Gunnison Colorado, in fall, showed up in a folder of watercolor images. The original idea for this one was to see how gouache behaves and to assess its opacity. I had purchased a few tubes of gouache because opacity in water media is useful and because acrylic paint isn't all that appealing to me. And you can reactivate gouache but not acrylic. When I ran across this image I remembered it because of the notation alongside. Sometimes sketchbook notes can help a lot. Besides noting the day and year they remind about me what I was actually interested in. This picture was painted from an online image over a violet-colored ground.

Thumbnails of the Sea, watercolor, 8x10, 2015
Here is that page of watercolor thumbnails mentioned above. When I ran across this page it surprised me. I had completely forgotten it. Seascapes haven't been a large part of my body of work, but the seas are constantly interesting to me. The waves and light and sky all are so enormously changeable, even moment to moment, that it's a challenge to capture even a bare suggestion of reality. These are ranged on an 8x10 sketch page. The pages were fairly lightweight and actually intended for ink drawing so adding watercolor caused some cockling. Each of these has a predominant color, which no doubt was one of the ideas I was mulling.

Hollyhocks, watercolor, 3.5x5.5, 2009
For the painting to the left I reached far back into some rescued files from nearly a decade ago. This particular watercolor was done one late summer day when I was searching for something to paint. The actual sketchbook has disappeared but the jpeg has survived. Sometimes these little sketches carry enough information to make a studio work in oil. This one still could translate to a bigger one, or perhaps to a background.

Nifty Fifty, watercolor, 4x6, ca2001

And last, here's a postcard sketch done nearly 20 years ago, for a collaborative project. The project involved mailing postcard-sized sketches to each participant in the group and in return the artist would receive one from each of the others. This was mailed to someone in one of those groups, if memory serves, and was done from a photo. The image here is a scan of the postcard. The most interesting part of this painting was rendering the beautifully reflective chrome.

Searching through old sketchbooks (or in this case digital files of them) is useful for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it may be reassuring to see progressing skills from beginning to the present. For another, review of old sketches can provide inspiration or even change the direction of an art practice. Finally, once in a very great while you might actually discover a picture that will stand on its own.

For me, then, old files can be a gold mine.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek

This watercolor sketch project began a few weeks back, and I posted a couple of them already. The thing is, the creek has become a continuing subject. One morning around sunup the creek that runs past my studio caught a gleam from the sky, a silvery thread that lightened and opened as the light penetrated the surrounding woods. As a subject, the creek is ideal for me. It's just outside my window and always available. It has woods and stones and all sorts of undergrowth. The wild honeysuckle along the banks turn yellow-green in spring as their drooping canes leaf out.

So because it's such a close motif, simple yet changeable, seasonal but eternal, this spring will partly involve sketching the creek as the seasons change. Here are several early sketches.

This is the first of the project, done in about an hour or so on February 4, just before a predicted snowstorm. The grasses and some of the distant trees either catch sunlight or are the usual dry yellow-brown of late winter. The creek catches the color of the sky.

The next day was bitterly cold after a cold front passage that left several inches of snow on the ground. The sky changed color somewhat, and everything got very pale. The creek froze and filled with the powdery snow that falls when the air is so cold. This sketch ran across the fold of my sketchbook as I tried to catch the blue shadows.

The snow settled in for a few days but at least there was sunshine. And in the sun you could see (somehow) that spring must be inevitable. The light became more yellow and the shadows turned a darker blue. The snow remained, though already shed by branches and twigs. The cold seemed to enter the bones, but spring was at least a promise.

Over the next several weeks I'm going to continue sketching the creek, which I've named Druid Hill Creek since that's the street name of the studio. As the seasons progress my plan is to capture the changes in the pages of a dedicated sketchbook. When it's filled, I'll stop.

Similar posts
Winter and Painting

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Five Caravaggios

A post from a while back about missing a chance to see a painting by Caravaggio caught my eye a few days ago. During a trip to Kansas City I tried to visit the well-known St. John at the museum there, only to find that the painting was in Milan. The post reminded me about a visit to Rome some years ago that was more successful in finding works by Caravaggio. That particular trip found me with a free afternoon to seek out works by the Baroque master. Examples of Caravaggio's paintings are few in the United States, and I planned to see as many of his works there as I could. The ones I sought that day are available to see for essentially no cost.

Rome is wealthy with works by Caravaggio of course--no surprise, given that he spent the majority of his artistic career in the city. The museums of the city are replete with his work, but museums all charge admission fees. On previous visits to the city I had already seen the wonderful works in the Galleria Borghese (The Sick Bacchus and David with the Head of Goliath are two favorites there) and Galleria Pamphilij (a less-visited but fabulous family-owned palace-museum that owns the non-pariel Rest on the Flight into Egypt and the Penitent Magdalene). I have yet to visit the Palazzo Barberini, which holds several, but certainly hope to do so one of these days. The works there by Caravaggio I'd most like to see include the famous Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Basilica of Sta Maria del Popolo (r) and Porta del Popolo (l), Rome.
That afternoon was a solo jaunt through central Rome. Having no companions gave substantial freedom to linger and consider the works that interested me--five of them in two churches where they were installed when completed. You can actually see all five works for virtually no cost. The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is one of the two, and the other is San Luigi dei Francesi. Each of these churches commissioned the artist to produce works for a side chapel, and the works remain in their original locations four hundred years afterward. For an American whose country is about half as old it's a staggering proposition.

The first destination was the
Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
church called San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French), partly because I didn't actually know how to find it and because it actually has three of the five works I was seeking. You don't usually find three in a museum, let alone a free-admission church. This particular church is located in what I sometimes think of as Caravaggio's neighborhood: the area surrounding the Piazza Navona, about a block away. The church was established for French people living in Rome, completed about 1589. A decade or so later, Caravaggio was commissioned to produce a cycle of paintings of St. Matthew. The works were to be installed in a chapel endowed in his will by Cardinal Contarelli (who despite his name was French). The original holder of the commission apparently could not complete the contract so Caravaggio was selected instead. Caravaggio was an up and coming artist in Rome who patron was an important cardinal who also lived in the area. Caravaggio produced his three Matthew paintings specifically for the space, carefully considering the space, wall sizes and lighting. Two on the side walls were the original commission. The altarpiece was added about two years later when sculptures weren't accepted for the space. These three paintings
"Calling of St. Matthew," ca 1599
have hung on these walls for more than 400 years. They show the calling of Matthew to discipleship, an angel providing inspiration for his gospel, and his eventual martyrdom. The Calling of St. Matthew is my particular favorite. We see Matthew the money-changer seated at a counting table, being skewered by a pointed finger from the shadows. The gesture is an obvious allusion to the finger of God extended to Adam on the Sistine ceiling, which Caravaggio would obviously have seen. Matthew is visibly surprised and seems to gesture, "Who, me?" The composition and grouping of figures in light and shadow is fascinating. You might expect that Jesus, the redeemer, would be placed in the light but instead he is obscured by another figure. A golden external light floods past his hand to light Matthew's forehead. It is easy to see why other artists admired Caravaggio's handling of light and shadow.

"Martyrdom of St. Matthew," ca 1599
On the right hand wall of the chapel is The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, a darker and considerably more turbulent painting than the Inspiration. In this work we see the disciple being killed by a man in a loincloth, a soldier according to church lore, while saying mass. Caravaggio produced a work that fulfilled specifics of the commission and gave us a whirling violent scene. The lighted triangle of striking soldier and stricken saint stand out among a whirl of recoiling onlookers. Figures seem to flash in and out of view in the enveloping darkness, a likely symbol of oblivion. The artist himself might be the tiny face peering out at us from the deepest of the dark.

"Inspiration of St. Matthew, " 1602
The third painting in the chapel was done a couple of years after the first, when some statuary intended for the chapel was unsatisfactory. The Inspiration of St. Matthew is the altarpiece in the chapel. It alludes to divine inspiration for the disciple writing his gospel. The brightly robed Matthew is being instructed by an angel hovering above. The two figures emerge in a sinuous dance of robes and figure against a darkly glowing background. The warm color of the saint's robes, the swirl of the angel's draperies and the motion evoked by them are transcendent. For me this one is probably the best-composed of the three, but I love them all.

Alas, today the chapel is so dark that one has to feed a light metering device to illuminate the three paintings for a minute or two at a time, so the wise visitor comes with a pocket full of Euros.

After using up my pocket change I regretfully left the San Luigi, just east of the Piazza Navona's north end, and headed to the Piazza del Popolo, a mile or so away. Most of central Rome is amenable to the pedestrian, so it was no trouble. I managed the walk in perhaps 20 minutes along the cobbled Roman streets. The Piazza del Popolo is a giant plaza at the northern end of the Via del Corso, the busy street running south to the Capitoline hill. At it's northern edge is the Porta del Popolo, once a city gate. The Piazza is quite large and heavily used most of the time by vehicles and people. Just to the east is the Pincian Hill and further east the big park-like Villa Borghese where the Galleria Borghese sits in its singular splendor.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo (pictured above, from across the Piazza) occupies a site just beside the Porta. The Basilica being adjacent to the Porta meant that for travelers, most of whom came from that direction, this was the first church they encountered in Rome, making this an important Christian place for at least a millennium, likely longer but
"Crucifixion of St. Peter," 1601
records earlier than the 13th century have been lost. This church of the people dates from the 15th century although it has been remodeled several times. Caravaggio was becoming better-known when he painted these important works. These paintings depict the two most important saints of the church--Peter and Paul. Each shows a defining event in the life of the saint but more importantly they show us Caravaggio's genius with chiaroscuro and with composition.

In the Crucifixion of St. Peter, he shows us the moment of the disciple's crucifixion. Peter is being raised into an inverted position, as the story of the saint says. Three men are working to raise the cross, one using his back beneath, another using a rope. Peter stares out of the picture, seemingly toward the altar of the chapel. Perhaps the oddest element of the picture, for me, is the enormous bum of the crouching man under the cross, intruding (and protruding) onto the viewer. Yet somehow it works. Caravaggio's use of light and dark and how he makes the skin tones glow are without peer. The other painting in the chapel, the Conversion on the Way to Damascus, is fine as well, showing Saul on his back, having been
"The Conversion of St. Paul," 1601
stricken on the road to Damascus. That painting is actually the second for the space, the first having been rejected. In this painting the dark is deep and enveloping as well, and Saul (who became Paul) has almost fallen onto us, the viewers. In this particular work the composition is unusual--the dominant figure of the huge horse, looming over the fallen Paul.

Once I had visited these final two of my five Caravaggios, I rewarded myself with an espresso and a chocolate gelato in a sidewalk cafe across the plaza. It had been a fine afternoon, indeed.

Missing Caravaggio